Mark Steyn

On the Town

Dads - on-screen, on-stage, and off

For this Father's Day weekend, I thought we'd enjoy a word from Jack Lemmon. Not because he's my dad, but because a quarter-century of Father's Days ago, I spent a little bit of time with him, first when he was in the West End to star in an almighty flop of a play, Veterans' Day (1989) and then, upon his return a few weeks later, when he was in London to promote a somewhat undernourished film called Dad (1990), with Ted Danson as his son and Ethan Hawke as his grandson and tons of male bonding. I interviewed Lemmon for The Independent, on February 21st 1990 - and we discussed his own dad, too:

We first glimpse the senior of the two eponymous Dads in bed, a drowsy geriatric roused from his slumbers to find his clothes laid out for him and his toothbrush pre-pasted and ready to go; all he has to do is get it to his mouth and move it up and down, which he just about manages. On the evidence of their recent work, the role would seem ideal for amiable old-timers like Jack Gilford or Don Ameche. Instead, it's gone to Jack Lemmon, which is a bit of a jolt for those of us who still think of him as the swinging bachelor of How To Murder Your Wife waking up round lunchtime with a heavy stubble and a worse hangover, trying to figure out why there's a trail of lady's underwear across the floor, and then realising he's accidentally married the chick who popped out of the cake at last night's party.

In Dad, grampa Jake, pushing 80, betrays not a trace of the actor's famous physical restlessness, peppy delivery or quartz-timed double-take. "His wife practically has to wipe his ass for him," says Lemmon. "It reaffirmed something I'd felt for a long time. Even when I was very young, I noticed that, with old people, the difference was in the eyes. Some of them were dead already. They've lost their capacity for excitement. I'd rather lose my sense of humour than that."

Lemmon himself is not pushing 80, and, enthusing about work old and new, he still punctuates his speech with those strange distinctive throat-clearings - "Errheeyah" - and still deploys his robust command of the vernacular - even if the slang now has a slightly outré quality, at least when applied to last year's out-of-town try-out for a new play: "I loved Manchester. Shit, yeah. Newcastle, Jeez, that was a hoot. Shit, man, those are great theatres." Yeah, man, no shit. Sixty-five on Monday, Lemmon brims with a sense of humour, non-dead eyes, and a capacity for enthusiasm beyond a publicist's dream. Of Dad, he raves: "This is a great part. It's a mini-Lear. But I don't think there's a danger of what happened to Jake happening to me, unless something terrible just pulled the cork out of my ass."

I don't quite know why anyone would want a cork in his ass in the first place, but the phrase sums up the Lemmon technique well. A large cork twisted a little further than one would recommend. His famous twitchiness was much in evidence in that play last year, Veterans' Day, opening with Lemmon on a waiting-room bench with the Lucia di Lammermoor Mad Scene of twitching.

As for dead eyes, he's been there, too, as the showbiz mediocrity going through the motions in The Entertainer (1976), a role for which two decades of top-tier stardom offered very little by way of experience. Similarly, his own family background proved no help for filming Dad. Unlike Jake drooling his way to the toothbrush, Lemmon's father was a successful businessman - the man who among other achievements devised the Planter's peanuts logo and, after moving into the bakery biz, introduced the doughnut to wartime Britain.

I wasn't sure I'd heard correctly. "Your dad introduced doughnuts to Britain?"

"Yeah," says Lemmon."He got the idea of serving them upfront with coffee in Doughnut Mobiles, through the Red Cross, I think. He hoped I'd go into his business, but I went to him and said, 'Pop, can you lend me 300 bucks so I can go to New York and see if I can get in the theatre?'"

Pop wasn't thrilled.

"He said, 'Eughhh... Acting! Do you really love it?' I said I did, and he said, 'Okay, good. Because when the day comes that I don't find romance in a loaf of bread, I'll quit.' Boy, that came in handy during the terrible dry periods. Then I remembered, well, I do love it, like he loved what he did."

I'd been expecting some tale of wanting to be an actor ever since seeing the Lunts on Broadway in his teens or something. "Nah," says Lemmon. "I remember as a kid thinking how much Pop loved his work, and wanting to find something I loved just as much."

On the other hand, when he switches from bread to the boards, Lemmon loses his sense of proportion like any old luvvie. A few years back, he delivered the all-time great Oscars introduction: "If I've made him seem like a god come down from Mount Olympus, I apologise — for the understatement." Laurence Olivier then walked on, not because he'd won anything, just to open the envelope.I scoff at this, and Lemmon looks, for one micro-second, slightly sheepish, before a ringing defence: "It went beyond the performances. There was an incredible majesty to the man himself. More than anybody else this century, he made every other actor proud to have been a member of the same profession."

Part of that majesty, though, must devolve from majestic roles. In contrast, Lemmon's reputation as an actor has been harder-won, in the sort of parts whose technical demands it's easy to overlook - likeable schnooks or, as Lemmon puts it, "your average guy muddling through, but somehow he makes it". Looking back, he's sometimes surprised to see how much is in those characters. "I remember when I did Neil Simon's Prisoner of Second Avenue with Annie Bancroft, and I thought, 'Well, it's pretty good.' Now, I think it's better than pretty good. As a matter of fact, we almost outsmarted ourselves, because at the time it had a mixed reception at the box-office. The reason was because, unlike the play, where people were laughing their heads off, Annie and I played that sucker for real. And there's nothing very funny about a fairly young man who's having a nervous breakdown and can't get hired. It became very poignant. Most of the time, an actor is just interpretive - either through a lack of his ability, or the director or the material. But if you can go beyond the material, it's creative; if you can do a scene and the playwright says, 'Sonofabitch, I never saw that'."

Still, if you're to bounce off it, the material needs to have some spring in it. Last summer, in the world premiere of Donald Freed's Veterans' Day, all Lemmon's skills availed him nought. There were three veterans on stage at the Theatre Royal Haymarket: Robert Flemyng as a shell-shocked survivor of the Great War; Michael Gambon as the usual psychopathic Vietnam colonel; and, in between, representing World War Two, Lemmon. It was the intergenerational male bonding of Dad played for clapped-out clichés: war is hell, the army is evil, and both damage everyone they touch. Gambon's a murderous loon, and Flemying's entirely mute, which gave him an advantage over the other two in that he didn't have to try and spark the leaden script. Lemmon gave it his customary detailed performance: in Act Two, when he's itching to take a leak, you certainly couldn't fault the wriggling. But the fidgetiness seemed to extend through the whole show, as if he was desperately trying to whip into life a play that resolutely refused to get up off the floor.

"It did not happen," he admits. "Going into it, all of us were intrigued, and we thought, 'We've got rehearsal, we've got out-of-town, we'll solve the problems.' But we couldn't. In Man Of The Moment now, Michael Gambon's on stage for about two and three-quarter hours. But he said to me he's about 10 per cent as tired as the two of us were in that much shorter play. We were on stage about an hour and 30 minutes, but it was the most exhausting thing I've ever done. You were trying to carry it instead of it carrying you. If I'd had to do it another month, I'd have been in hospital."

At least, a flop show leaves no tangible evidence. "I took Matthau to a preview of a picture I did called Alex And The Gypsy. And I thought, 'Oh, boy, am I going to kill him with this performance.' There was nobody left in the theatre when the lights finally came up: it was a total disaster. I said, 'Okay, Walt, whaddaya think?' He said to me, 'Get out of it."'

Lemmon's a shrewd judge, though, and there isn't much he's had to "get out of" across the decades. But, for all his pitching for Dad, do even the best comedies today compare with Billy Wilder or Lubitsch?

"There are fewer of what I'd call 'book comedies' now - with a first, second and third act through which the characters grow," he says. "Yes, there's often a story today, but you could interchange the scenes. They're like sketches: they've each got their own punch, then ka-boom, on to the next." Overall, though, Lemmon doesn't feel the ratio of good to bad films has changed much, and he keeps an open mind on directors: Dad is the work of a newcomer to feature film, Gary David Goldberg.

And in any case instant success in great films can be a mixed blessing: Mister Roberts, Some Like It Hot, Days Of Wine And Roses... "Boom! I was off to the races. But, because I'd gotten these wonderful parts, I couldn't just take a job; I had to wait for something that, hopefully, would be on the same level. That can make you stir crazy. But for me, as the actor, Dad is the best combination of comedy and drama since The Apartment. It's hard enough to write a good drama, it's much harder to write a good comedy, and it's hardest of all to write a drama with comedy. Which is what life is."

Dad turned out not to be "the best combination of comedy and drama since The Apartment". But you have to admire an actor good enough to be able to assert that with a straight face.

I met Jack Lemmon on just three occasions, and on two of them I liked it best when we talked music. He played piano and wrote songs all his life, ever since a modest college effort called "The Bottom's Dropped Out Of Everything But You". His tunes were sufficiently appealing for Alan Jay Lerner and Sammy Cahn, among others, to put words to them, but he kept it a hobby. "I don't know if I've got a wide-enough range. The ballads? No problem. I can write very pretty melodies at the drop of a hat. But, when you get into rhythm tunes and other things, I'm nowhere near as good." He inclined naturally towards the work of old friends like Johnny Mercer, and has no interest in pretending to like rock. "I regret it. I'm sure part of that is prejudice because when I grew up we were still getting music from Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, Kern... But, forgetting nostalgia, nobody's gonna tell me that there's anyone around who can hold a goddam candle to those people."

He once played Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are" for me — clean and lovely and unaffected. There were times I wished he'd acted a bit more like that. But, as somebody said to him long ago, nobody's perfect.

from On the Town, June 20, 2015



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